EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was produced as part of The Puffin Nation Fund Fall Fellows Program. 

It took Farah Said almost seven years to complete her undergraduate studies as an undocumented student in New York City. After enrolling in CUNY City College’s Childhood Education Program and completing 113 credits, Said was told she could not graduate. Even though she had applied and was accepted to the program as an undocumented student, administration later informed her that she would not be able to complete the last, required part of the curriculum—student teaching. “Student teaching requires finger printing and finger printing requires a social security number, which I did not have,” says Said.

Said is among 51,000 undocumented students who currently reside in New York and of 569,000 in the United States. New research indicates that undocumented students account for approximately two percent of all students in higher education in the United States; these students are often encouraged to apply to the City University of New York. CUNY is known to offer specialized support for undocumented youth through programs like the Dream.US Scholarship, which grants up to $29,000 to students going for two- or four-year degrees at CUNY who are eligible to be covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA).

Said remembers when President Obama created DACA in 2012, but she was not eligible. Under DACA, people who immigrated to the United States as children and met specific guidelines could be allowed to work. It also enabled people without previous legal status to attend school and apply for loans without fear of deportation. But it did not make them citizens. Said met all the requirements to qualify for DACA, except one.

She immigrated to the United States from Cairo, Egypt, at the age of 15 in 2008; however, DACA recipients must have been present in the country by June 15, 2007. She was one year too late. “I held out hope that something would change…that the policy might change.”

And it almost did. In November of 2014, President Obama announced that an extension to DACA would be introduced. The revised program would include undocumented immigrants who entered the country prior to 2010, eliminating the requirement that applicants be younger than 31 years old, and lengthen the renewable deferral period to two years. Multiple states immediately sued to prevent the expansion of DACA, which was eventually blocked by an evenly divided U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Texas. After President Donald Trump’s election, the US Department of Homeland Security rescinded the expansion.

After switching her major twice and still not being able to graduate, Said transferred to City College’s Center for Worker Education and graduated with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies of Arts and Science. “What do you do with that? I don’t know. I just needed to finish,” says Said.

Said is now a graduate student at CUNY City College, enrolled in the Bilingual Education Program on the non-certified track. “Even if you have the potential, the talent, the skill, and the knowledge to find a job, it’s hard as an undocumented student,” says Said.

Frustrated with the education system, Said was inspired to help people like herself She now works at CUNY-IIE, the Initiative on Immigration and Education. CUNY-IIE creates opportunities for educational stakeholders to learn from immigrant students, families, and educators directly affected by harsh immigration policies and educational inequality. With CUNY-IIE, Said develops resources that support mixed status immigrant communities that include undocumented, refugee, and asylum-seeking members. The goal of CUNY-IIE is to help educators, researchers, families, and local leaders work together to learn from immigrant communities to advocate for equitable policies and opportunities. “My job is to educate educators about the holes of this system.”

Despite the constraints of the education system, there are heroes—like Said—who are working to relieve some of the pressures placed on undocumented students in New York City. Interim Dean Vanessa Valdés is affecting policies of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Macaulay Honors College in New York City. As a Bronx native and daughter to parents of Puerto Rican heritage, Valdés has always felt like she was “straddling two worlds.” Her time at Yale University as an undergraduate, taking classes on Afro Hispanic and Latino literature, was when she developed a deep-rooted commitment to racial justice. “There is an ever-present fear that exists for undocumented students in New York City,” says Dean Valdés. “It is paralyzing.”

Valdés notes that most of the student body in NYC identify as first-generation; their parents might not have had the opportunity to attend college and they struggle with navigating the education system in America. This is why Valdés’ mission at Macaulay is to highlight programs within CUNY that can help students succeed as they pursue higher education. “People think we don’t need to explicitly announce these resources—but we do. We need to be trained as allies for this space, especially for departments that are student-facing,” says Valdés.

Dean Valdés works closely with Veronica Maldonado, Assistant Dean for Student Services at the Macaulay Honors College. Maldonado is a leader in developing career and student services for vulnerable students at Macaulay. “A lot of the students have this self-imposed pressure to succeed and be the ones in their families who make it,” says Maldonado.

Maldonado understands that undocumented students at Macaulay want to ensure that the sacrifices their parents made in immigrating to the United States, were “worth it.” In her 15 years with Macaulay, Maldonado has helped establish several programs which were designed to help guide undocumented youth along their academic careers. She assists the 30 to 50 undocumented students at Macaulay with scholarships, international education, student development, advisement, and career services. 

The Undocumented Student Support Page highlights lesser-known opportunities for undocumented students as well as contact information for staff at each CUNY campus who can assist the undocumented student population. “The staff and faculty listed on this page are educated about the challenges facing undocumented students and resources that are available [to them], through a training program called the UndocuAlly Training,” says Maldonado. As part of this program, UndocuAllies are trusted to connect students to the proper resources, provide a safe nondiscriminatory environment, and offer updates on policies that support undocumented students. Maldonado also promotes CUNY Citizenship Now!, a citywide effort to help undocumented students “navigate immigration law through free confidential legal services,” lessening their anxieties surrounding citizenship status. Allan Wernick, director and attorney-in-charge of CUNY Citizenship Now!, founded this program as a way to help students become citizens, not only at CUNY but throughout all of New York City.

Considering the challenges brought on by the Covid pandemic as well as the shift in presidencies, Wernick notes the resiliency of the undocumented community in New York City. “It takes a lot of moxie. It takes a lot of strength.” Under the Trump administration, there was an obvious decline in people applying for DACA status. Even before the limbo period, in which no new DACA applications were being processed, Dreamers became hesitant to pursue traditional legal steppingstones to citizenship, like applying for green cards.

President Biden had big plans to undo harmful policies that were implemented during Trump’s presidency. Within his first one hundred days in office, Biden successfully reversed some of his predecessor’s policies and attempted to create a more direct path to citizenship for Dreamers. Despite Biden’s effort to revitalize the U.S immigration system, the struggle of undocumented youth was heightened by the coronavirus pandemic. “People felt like everything was going to be tougher—and it was,” says Wernick. “But the importance of quality legal advice is that you understand the limits of the government.”

CUNY CitizenshipNow! helps more people apply for DACA than any other organization in the city. And they do it free of charge. Wernick proposes three critical ways to best help undocumented students in New York City. The first is helping figure out a way to give these individuals citizenship papers. With Citizenship Now! undocumented youth are provided free consultations and application assistance with trusted attorneys and paralegals. 

Another main objective of Citizenship Now! is to encourage undocumented youth to continue their academic pursuits. Staff at Citizenship Now! provide students with information about tuition and key scholarships, among other easy-to-miss information. In doing so, they help dispel the intimidation that steers undocumented students away from pursuing U.S citizenship. “When you have lawyers who can speak with confidence about what your rights are,” the fear of pursuing legal action becomes less daunting, explains Wernick.

CUNY Citizenship Now! also supports undocumented youth in figuring out their next steps after college. Wernick designed CUNY Citizenship Now! to engage with skills that undocumented students have already started to develop during their college careers. With some legal guidance, students are able to use what they have learned at school to be self-sufficient—whether that be through a passion project or entrepreneurial endeavor. “Don’t be afraid. Go for it,” Wernick advises his charges.

Even with the difficulties that persist for this community, Valdés, Maldonado, and Wernick urge undocumented students to stay hopeful and keep fighting. These three people and their small but deeply impactful organizations represent a subset of the growing community engaged in creating a supportive infrastructure for undocumented students in New York City. Although, at times, it seems like support is hard to find, Dean Valdés assures NYC Dreamers: “Hold tight to each other. We will find you.”